Seldom is the political history of a country so closely interwoven with the building a bridge as it is in Bangladesh, a country of 120 million people perched above the stormy Bay of Bengal. The dream of successive governments since 1973, the foundation stone for the bridge was laid in 1985 when general Husain Muhammad Ershad was president.
Work started only in 1994 during Khaleda Zia’s tenure at the helm. She is currently leader of the opposition. At that time, it was named the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge but with the change of government in 1996, the bridge also had a name-change: it became the Bangabandhu Bridge. If the initial name reflected its true purpose, its new name reflected the political priorities of the current regime headed by Shaikh Hasina Wajed.
Bangladesh was not only born in tumult and bloodshed but it has had its fair share of both eversince. Its founder, first president and later prime minister, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman was not only the father of the country but also of Shaikh Hasina Wajed, the current prime minister. Shaikh Mujib was gunned down, together with his entire family minus Hasina (who happened to be in India at the time) by the military on August 15, 1975.
Since then, Shaikh Mujib’s position has oscillated between a villain and saint, depending on who is in power. The history of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge reflects this part of Bangladeshi history. It will link northern Bangladesh with the rest of the country. A land of rivers, the country’s various parts are cut off, especially during monsoons, from each other because of flooding, for extended periods.
The 4.8 km bridge built at a cost of US$900 million will usher a new era in Bangladesh transportation once the brige opens sometime in June. ‘The bridge will open a new era for Bangladesh in terms of communications, industrialization and development,’ communications minister Anwar Hossain said on March 4. It will carry four lanes of traffic, a railway, power lines and gas pipelines. It has 49 spans and is 18.5 meters wide.
Designed by the Los Angeles-based company T Y Lim, it was built by South Korea’s Hyundai Ltd. Financial support for the project came from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japan. An estimated $110 million was raised locally through levies and surcharges on cinema tickets and telephone bills and other measures.
Despite numerous name changes for the bridge and government changes in the country, it seems the minister of communications has managed to keep close to his portfolio. Anwar Hossain was minister in the Jatiya Party government of general Ershad when its foundation was laid in 1985. He is again the minister of communication in Shaikh Hasina’s cabinet when the bridge is about to be opened.
Project sources said an estimated 1,875 vehicles a day would initially use it, growing to an estimated 25,000 by the year 2030. Bridge construction, however, has had a negative effect on one segment of the population. At least 15,000 families have been displaced. Asked about their resettlement, Hossain said this would be completed in the year 2000.
In the meantime, these families would just have to enjoy watching cars zoom across the bridge while they hope and pray heavy rains do not wash them away into the sea. Bridges are clearly more important than some people’s lives in Bangladesh.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1998